MELVYN DOUGLAS AND HELEN GAHAGAN DOUGLAS
Glamorous and urbane, earnest and committed, they were the first couple of New Deal liberalism during the formative years of Hollywood’s political development. Initially Melvyn was the driving force—a mainstay of sophisticated MGM comedies (renowned as “the man who made Garbo laugh” in the 1939 classic Ninotchka), Douglas also proved a born political organizer. He played a central role in building the lustrous Hollywood Popular Front groups that sought to mobilize opposition to Hitler and support for the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War; in 1938, he took the lead in creating the Motion Picture Democratic Committee, Hollywood’s first organization focused on electoral politics. A popular and energetic campaigner, Douglas was rewarded for his activism in 1940 by becoming the first celebrity elected as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention. That convention, ironically, marked the turning point at which his wife, a singer and actress with a deep commitment to the poor, assumed the family’s leading political role: during the 1940 campaign, she appeared tirelessly for President Roosevelt, even accepting an appointment as the California Democratic Party’s vice chairwoman. In 1944, Helen was elected to Congress (FDR promoted her as the Democratic alternative to the arch and elegant Republican Rep. Clare Booth Luce). She served three terms before losing the 1950 California Senate race to Richard Nixon, who famously branded her as “the pink lady” and unfairly accused her of being a communist sympathizer. (In fact, both Helen and Melvyn had frequently sparred with communists in the Popular Front groups.) Neither Douglas engaged much in politics thereafter; Melvyn was “gray-listed” as a “premature anti-Fascist,” and he did not work regularly again until the 1960s. But more than any others in Hollywood’s founding generation of activists, they demonstrated how many doors in Washington would open to politically engaged stars.
MICHAEL J. FOX
Among National Journal’s Insiders, only Bono drew more votes than Fox as the most-effective advocate on Capitol Hill. Since revealing in 1998 that he was suffering from Parkinson’s disease, Fox has been a powerful and poignant voice for expanding federal efforts to find a cure—particularly by funding stem-cell research. In 2006, Fox effectively campaigned for several Democratic candidates who supported stem-cell research, most memorably appearing in an ad that helped Claire McCaskill win a Senate seat in Missouri. The ad, which dramatically featured Fox shaking uncontrollably, was instantly attacked by Rush Limbaugh, but the criticism backfired and compounded the ad’s impact. Fox’s influence as an advocate is rooted both in his personal connection to his cause and the persistence of his work for it. “Few celebrities have ever been associated more closely with a cause for as long as Michael J. Fox, and his selfless efforts have inspired many others to follow suit,” one Democratic Insider said in our survey. A Republican said: “Michael J. Fox is unequivocally No. 1, because unlike the others, he is advocating for an issue that affects him personally and profoundly. It is moving.” Even as Fox has lobbied for greater government support, his foundation has funded more than $200 million in Parkinson’s research, magnifying his impact.
The popularity of the Boomtown Rats, punk-rock pioneers, was already in decline when front-man Geldof recruited an all-star team of British rockers in 1984 under the name Band-Aid to perform a benefit single for famine-stricken African nations called “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” After that song broke sales records and raised millions of dollars, the next year, he organized Live Aid, mammoth famine-relief concerts held simultaneously in London and Philadelphia. (Geldof was knighted for his efforts.) Twenty years later, he returned with “Live 8”—10 concerts around the globe crowded with musicians and movie stars that were timed to pressure the Group of Eight industrial nations then meeting to increase aid to Africa. Geldof imagined celebrity activism at a previously unseen, global, scale: He went further than any activist before him to convert the worldwide fame of the most iconic popular entertainers into a political force.
Few artifacts of pop culture have had a more lasting political impact than Greenwood’s emotional 1984 ballad “God Bless the USA.” Almost immediately after its release, the song became the Republican Party’s unofficial campaign anthem. It provided the soundtrack for a Ronald Reagan tribute video at the 1984 GOP convention and has been part of the campaign repertoire for every GOP presidential candidate since, not to mention a staple of country radio after the 9/11 attacks and during the first and second Persian Gulf wars. Greenwood’s ode grates on some ears as syrupy and simplistic, but in its unabashed celebration of faith, family, and flag, the song both reflects and assists the GOP’s transformation into an increasingly blue-collar, churchgoing, heartland party; it is more likely to be heard blaring from the radio of a Ford truck than a Mercedes sedan. Probably not since Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal Democrats adopted Milton Ager’s “Happy Days Are Here Again” has a single song been so closely identified with a political party—or so succinctly encapsulated its cultural identity.